THE BOTTOM END
The following message recently appeared in my Facebook feed for Jim Wangers and the GeeTO Tiger.
Jim was diagnosed with dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s disease, four years ago. Up until this past fall, he seemed to be getting along pretty well. Unfortunately, this horrible disease takes no prisoners, and that is no longer the case.
Jim is currently living in an assisted living facility…. He is getting wonderful care, his overall health is good (he still walks unassisted), and appears content.
I have had the honor to work for Jim for almost 20 years, and it is hard to see this hideous disease take such a toll on this great mind. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers.
Of course, his fame comes from being the Godfather of the GTO, but there’s so much more to the man who devoted almost 60 years to the auto industry, car hobby, and philanthropy. A common misconception is that he was a designer or engineer at Pontiac; rather, his heyday was in the advertising industry. No matter what your brand allegiance, it’s likely you owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Wangers.
Wangers joined CampbellEwald as a copywriter right when General Motors’ lowpriced brand was planning its 1955 campaign. Convincing his superiors that NASCAR’s Speed Week would be a good opportunity to mine positive press for the new 180-horse Power Pack fell on deaf ears. Wangers was told that “Chevrolet is not into racing.” Nonetheless, he went to Daytona on his own dime and documented the success of independent Chevy racers. Reaction to his report was underwhelming, as his bosses continued to feel it was some outlaw racing thing.
Media spread the word about Daytona, yet enthusiasts discovered that dealerships were unprepared to cater to them. Through the chain of managers and zones, word got back to the central office, so CampbellEwald was forced to capitalize on this marketing opportunity. This time Wangers’ report received proper consideration, and by February 1955 Chevrolet had become the Hot One.
Wangers moved to MacManus, John & Adams in 1958 as an assistant account executive. The following year he was given permission to develop and test a traveling seminar for training dealerships in the world of high performance. Royal Pontiac in suburban Detroit became the guinea pig for knowing its way around an order form, stocking the right parts, and running a dealer-sponsored car at the drags—and so much more.
But with GM doubling down on a racing ban in 1963, it seemed Pontiac’s investment in racing had all been for naught.
Thus the 1964 GTO. “Truth was we were taking Pontiac performance off the race track, like the Corporation wanted, and putting it on the street, like the Corporation didn’t want,” wrote Wangers in his book Glory Days. The story has been told many times, but Wangers enjoyed a unique role as the unofficial spokesman for Pontiac, a man with one hand on the pulse of the street, another on the pulse of Pontiac courtesy of Chief Engineer John DeLorean.
As told in Hurst Equipped by Mark Fletcher and Richard Truesdell, Hurst commissioned MJ&A (with Wangers, of course) to sell Pontiac on a big-inch supercar based on the 1968 Firebird. GM’s general manager claimed Firebird sales didn’t need help, so it was suggested to pay Oldsmobile a visit, as the Lansing company was bitter it didn’t receive an F-Body cousin. The result was the 1968 Hurst/ Olds. Two years later, Wangers (now consulting for Hurst) proposed a brightly colored smallblock H/O as competitor to the Plymouth Road Runner. Olds stole the idea and produced the Rallye 350.
Wangers and Hurst’s Dave Landrith presented AMC with an idea of bringing the 1964 GTO concept up to 1969 standards, which evolved into the 1969 SC/Rambler. Now at Hurst, Wangers followed it up in 1970 with the Rebel Machine.
The 1970 Chrysler 300H was another Hurst creation that received Wangers’ magic touch. Several years later, while running Motortown with Landrith, they approached Chrysler with the 1976 Volaré Road Runner and Aspen R/T. Wangers brought Mopar more success with the 1981 Charger 2.2.
Yes, even the Mustang received the Wangers’ touch when Motortown developed the 1976 Cobra II.
Other Notable Contributions
Wangers helped form the creation of Detroit Dragway in 1959 and brought the NHRA to town to host the Nationals.
He won the 1960 NHRA Top Stock Eliminator title driving a Royal-prepped Catalina.
Pontiac offered Hurst shifters as an over-the-counter option for 1961 on Wangers’ urging. Other manufacturers followed suit.
But the Jim Wangers legend as we know it was dwarfed by the founding of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. in 1981, which filled a latent need for certified USAC testing/comparisons for advertisers.
Even when it seemed there was none, Wangers never forgot that horsepower and passion ruled Detroit.
n Jim Wangers is arguably most famous for his association with the GTO, but his influence in the auto industry went much further.